Overdue Library Books: lessons learnt from the theft and trafficking of texts and manuscripts

  • January 21, 2016
  • By Hunters Law

Thanks in part to high profile cases such as the Gurlitt art trove and well publicised films like Woman in Gold and the Monuments Men, the world is alert to the issue of the systematic looting from publically held collections of cultural property during the Nazi regime. A lesser known, but equally important threat to the world’s cultural resources, however, is the issue of widespread theft and illicit trafficking in rare books, maps and manuscripts from public libraries and other book repositories around the world.

This topic was the subject of a one day conference at the British Library in London on 26th June 2015 entitled “The Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril”. The conference was organised by the Art Law Commission (ALC) of the UIA together with the Institute of Art & Law and its audience included international dealers, collectors, curators, museum officials, auction houses, lawyers and security experts, many of whom who had personal knowledge or experience of dealing with stolen books, maps and manuscripts. This was the largest international seminar of its kind devoted to the problems of security that national institutions and libraries face when trying to protect these highly portable and accessible commodities.

The issue of theft from libraries came largely to the public attention in 2003 when a former member of staff at the Royal Library in Copenhagen was found to have been stealing rare books for years and selling them to a complicit second-hand book dealer. The thefts were exposed when a book specialist from Christie’s became suspicious after he had been instructed to sell a rare copy of a 1517 Italian book and made enquiries.  The expert was aware that there were only two known copies of this book; an incomplete copy in the National Library of Spain and a complete one in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. After contacting the Royal Library of Copenhagen he was told that it had been missing since 1979 and was recorded as such in an audit. Although the police had become involved at that time, neither the book nor the thief had been traced. Further enquiry (including proceedings) revealed that the seller was married to the son of the former head of the Oriental Department of the same library who had worked there from 1967 to 2000. This former employee had since died but a search revealed that his widow had approximately 1500 rare books in her home and that his son also had several rare books. They had all been stolen by their former employee during his lifetime and many were returned to the library.

The case is sadly not unique. In 2011 the Director of the Girolamini Library, Naples was found to have 1000 rare books from the library at his home. It was discovered that he had also plundered other libraries in Italy earlier in his career and had sold them in Europe – principally Munich, where several other arrests were made.

The temptation to steal the very books maps and manuscripts which employees are entrusted to care for can have tragic consequences, as was evident in the case of the National Library of Sweden. In 2005 it was discovered that a map and over 56 rare books were missing from the library and that the records had been altered to conceal the thefts. Enquiries pointed towards the flamboyant chief of the library’s manuscript department, who was the only person with high level access to the books. When challenged, he confessed to having stolen the books but on a temporary release from custody he tragically committed suicide.  It became clear that he had taken the books during his employment, removed all identifying marks associated with the library and sold them through a dealer for cash, no proper enquiries having been made about their provenance.

The common theme amongst these, and other examples, is that books maps and manuscripts are easy targets because they are easily accessible to the public and are highly portable. However, it also became clear that many of the thefts had been committed by employees of the libraries or book repositories who had been entrusted to care for them. They were easy to steal, not just because of their accessibility and portability, but also because many of the libraries and institutions had no proper, or up-to-date inventories, security systems or records systems in place that would have immediately alerted those in charge to the theft.

What is also very clear is that there were willing dealers who are prepared to accept books without making full and proper enquiries into their provenance or checking whether they had any identifying marks or evidence of marks being removed.

Many museums and institutions that have lost valuable rare books and manuscripts have failed to publicise the loss even when they have become aware of a theft, possibly due to embarrassment. This of course does little to aid the process of recovery. There were also suggestions that recruitment and training of museum staff ought to be improved to avoid a situation where unhappy and, possibly, embittered employees (who may also feel underpaid) are tempted to steal from their employers in the first place. The knowledge that security systems are either outdated or poorly maintained, together with the prospect of topping up their pension, might be too much for some to resist!

The theft of books is nothing new. Chained libraries in medieval times existed precisely to prevent thefts. The conference, however, highlighted the specific vulnerability of books and manuscripts and the need for better and rigorous record-keeping systems, proper vetting of staff and the need to engender a culture where the dealers, libraries, institutions and auction houses are all alert to the problem and actively engage in crime prevention.  There have been encouraging examples of institutions voluntarily returning items that are known to have been stolen, including, in August 2015 the return of a copy of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin being returned by US Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE) and the Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) to the people of Canada, following its theft in 2012 by a known and convicted antiquities thief.

Perhaps one of the more poignant moments of the conference was when Stephen Loewentheil, Founder and President in 19th Century Rare Book & Photographic Shop in Baltimore spoke about due diligence amongst the booksellers trade. He told the conference that upon discovering that he had been in possession of books stolen from the National Swedish Library he purchased the books back from his buyer and then returned them voluntarily to the library for no reward. He received a medal from the library. His absolute integrity is surely an example of the excellent moral and public-spirited behaviour that the industry as a whole should aspire to.


Hetty Gleave, Hunters (incorporating May, May & Merrimans)

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